At Minnesota State University in Mankato, an easy, 90-minute drive south from the Twin Cities, where the Vikings are summering for the 47th consecutive year. No other NFL team that goes away for training camp has such a continuous relationship with the same school. Almost as a welcome-back greeting, the weather broke upon the team's arrival last Thursday, with the mercury dropping from near triple digits to the much more palatable high 70s-low 80s during the day. The Vikings will camp here until Aug. 16, about a week longer than usual.
"He's such a unique athlete, it's hard to draw conclusions this early," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's done so well at every juncture with his rehab. He's been ahead of just about everybody our trainers and doctors have worked with. We'll just monitor it daily and see where he is as time goes on."
In the meantime, third-year back Toby Gerhart will do the heavy lifting in the running game. Gerhart started five games last season and rushed 109 times for 531 yards.
The former Florida State QB had a decent rookie season -- he completed 158 of 291 passes (54.3 percent) for 1,853 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions -- but he admits a four-turnover performance marred further by a hip pointer in a late-season loss to Detroit rattled his confidence. Ponder spent the offseason focusing on getting a better feel for his reads and getting the ball out of his hands more quickly. He looked like a different quarterback early in camp.
"It's night and day different," said center John Sullivan, who spent a lot of time with Ponder during the offseason doing recreational boating on Minnesota's lakes. "He's in control of everything now. His reactions to defensive looks are much quicker and he's confident where he's going with the ball. I don't want to overstate it, because we're only [a few days] in, but he looks a lot better."
That group will have some turnover in personnel this season. Chris Cook is supposed to start opposite Winfield at cornerback, and second-round rookie Harrison Smith is eventually expected to replace Jamarca Sanford at strong safety -- maybe in time for the season opener.
Do you think Ponder was eager to see Kalil get to Mankato on time for the start of training camp? Not only did Ponder pick up Kalil at the Minneapolis airport last week, but also he took him to Winter Park, where Kalil stopped in to sign a four-year contract worth a reported $20 million, and then chauffeured him to Mankato.
When opponents would use two and sometimes three defenders to take away Percy Harvin last season, the Vikings didn't have another receiving weapon who could stretch the field vertically. With Simpson and Harvin on the field at the same time, teams will have to be more judicious in their coverage.
"We didn't have an answer away from Percy," Frazier said. "We think with Jerome, we've got that and we can take some of the pressure off of Percy."
The Vikings went 3-13 in 2011 -- the worst record in the franchise's 52-year history. They have a chance for some early success this season because they open with Jacksonville at home and then travel to Indianapolis, where they will face a rebuilding Colts team. They'll face only four playoff teams from 2011 -- the 49ers, Texans, Packers (twice) and Lions (twice) -- but they face a challenging stretch run. Five of their final six games are against the Bears (twice), the Packers (twice) and Houston.
The Vikings have a largely young roster that includes a second-year quarterback and a rookie left tackle, and their franchise running back had knee surgery less than eight months ago. This has the look of a 6-10 season, which won't get the Vikings to the postseason but would be an appreciable improvement over last season.